Sports Orgs’ Community Programs Now Face ‘Much Higher Expectations’ and Scrutiny
Why this matters
Despite measurable impact in many cases, community programs from the NFL, NBA and other leagues face heightened scrutiny because of a perception that sports organizations do not live up to these cultural values, or that the money is spent indiscriminately.
In his speech accepting the NFL’s 2021 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, Los Angeles Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth told a story about meeting a young Detroit Lions linebacker on the field after a game. The player greeted him enthusiastically. Who is this guy? Whitworth wondered. Have I been playing so long that this is a former coach’s son?
The player introduced himself as Derrick Barnes and said he had been a young boy at the Boys and Girls Club in Cincinnati when Whitworth visited years earlier. The time Whitworth spent talking with him was a powerful experience for Barnes, though Whitworth has no recollection of it. “I think that’s a great lesson for all of us,” Whitworth said in his speech. “None of us know when the moment’s going to present itself. The key is to always be available when it does.”
Whitworth challenged the men and women in attendance to invest – invest their time, invest their money, invest their voices – in making their communities better. He had earned the right to speak boldly. He has contributed his time, money, and voice to a wide array of issues from food insecurity to homelessness to educational inequity. Whitworth is one of many athletes who can be lauded for his efforts. Leagues and teams, too, devote hundreds of millions of dollars and countless hours to charitable endeavors and social issues.
But not all good works are as simple as Whitworth’s. The good ones stand alongside bad ones – fundraisers in which only a small percentage of money goes to a cause, opportunists whose words don’t match their deeds, or even athletes whose passion for an issue outpaces their ability to execute on it. Much of the sports world’s corporate social responsibility, social justice reform efforts, and philanthropy lives in the murky middle, where progress, if there is any, is made in fits and starts.
In 2019, the National Football League and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation announced they had formed a partnership to work together on live music and the NFL’s Inspire Change social justice campaign. It was a curious collaboration, considering Jay-Z was a strong supporter of Colin Kaepernick, whose kneeling during the national anthem set off years of conversation about the NFL, race, and police reform that continue today in the league’s fifth year of its Inspire Change program, part of which focuses on race issues.
If charity starts at home, so does social justice. Part of the NFL’s work in inequity is within its own ranks, particularly among head coaches and executives, long a source of contention. Last year, the NFL introduced the accelerator program with a goal of increasing diversity in the coaching and front office ranks. The program is off to a promising start, with new Tennessee Titans general manager Ran Carthon having met his new Titans bosses at an accelerator event in December. But the NFL still has to deal with a lawsuit from Brian Flores, now Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator, accusing teams of racist hiring practices.
The challenge of executing on a small and large scale, directly in the public eye, and in the shadow of a history of miscues is not unique to the NFL. In an age of ever-increasing calls for corporate social responsibility, social justice reform, and philanthropy and with a fan base increasingly scrutinizing such efforts, athletes, teams, and leagues are left navigating a challenging giving ecosystem, searching for the best way to invest their time, money, and voices.
With the Super Bowl and the National Basketball Association All-Star Game in mid-February, both leagues and their players will be trumpeting their efforts to make the world a better place. They will do so in a good-works marketplace undergoing substantial upheaval. “It’s changed almost entirely in some ways,” says Alisha Greenberg, an expert on sports philanthropy and a program director at the Sports and Entertainment Impact Collective, which trains and educates sports leaders on corporate social responsibility, social justice, and philanthropy.
Those three terms are top of mind for major sports leagues. Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, generally refers to a business model in which the organization integrates social concerns into their operations. Social justice seeks fair treatment and equitable status for all members of society. Philanthropy comprises charitable acts and other good works.
Some, but not all, corporate social responsibility and social justice campaigns could be seen as philanthropy. Some philanthropy, but not all, could be seen as corporate social responsibility and social justice campaigns.
Fans expect the players and leagues they love to be generous with their time, money, and voices. Those same fans are also more cynical than ever, ready to call out posing, inauthenticity, and grandstanding.
Whether you’re an athlete, team, or sports league, your actions must align with what you’re saying, or fans will see through you. “You can’t really fool anyone anymore,” Greenberg says. “They’re able to figure it out.”
The NFL learned this in 2013 after Business Insider reported on the league’s annual October drive to support the American Cancer Society by selling pink officially licensed gear and donating a percentage of the proceeds. The report found that for every $100 spent on the gear, only $8.01 was spent on cancer research.
While the NFL insisted it kept no profits from pink merchandise sales, SI.com said “the league has been less than transparent” about the financial details.
“Given the NFL’s history of ‘truth flexibility’ with everything from revenue to concussions to its own disciplinary process,” wrote Doug Farrar for Sports Illustrated, “it’s tough to err on their side when there’s any uncertainty on exactly where the money goes.”
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Whatever sports figures and organizations do, they have to do it in the right ways and for the right reasons. “If your ‘why’ is just because it’s popular, you’re probably going to lose interest,” says Meredith Wolff, who, like Greenberg, is a program director at SEIC. She also is founder of Seek to Be LLC, a sports-based philanthropic consulting business.
The title of one of Greenberg and Wolff’s workshops — “Beyond the photo op” — hints at how the sports world has been forced to adapt to philanthropy. No longer is it sufficient for a sports figure to pose for a meaningless grip-and-grin photo and feel like they’ve done communal good. “That was just so commonplace for so long, and I think people have challenged it,” Greenberg says, “and it has gotten so much better.”
For an endeavor to be successful, it needs to demonstrate long-term strategies, measurable outcomes, and seamlessness between the campaign and the parent organization. “If you don’t have clear mission and values, there’s going to be inconsistency, and you’re going to run into challenges,” says Todd Jacobson, the NBA’s senior vice president for social responsibility.
Wolff, Greenberg, and others use the same terms repeatedly – authenticity, transparency, integrity, humility, holistic, proactive – in describing key ingredients in CSR, social justice, and philanthropy campaigns.
More than ever before, people who work in CSR, social justice, and philanthropy form an industry with sophisticated marketing campaigns and professional staffs. And the sports world, with its built-in platforms and social media audiences, is in a unique position to take advantage of those advancements in execution. “The power of sports to bring people together is an incredible tool and platform to bring about and inspire change,” Jacobson says.
In an ever-shifting landscape, identifying what to try to change, and how to do it, has become increasingly important.
Do it wrong, and you look foolish. Do it well, and you can make the world a better place while also giving yourself good PR and helping your bottom line.
When ESPN profiled Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s senior vice president of social responsibility, they chose the headline “Can Anna Isaacson save the NFL?” Isaacson oversees the league’s social justice and philanthropic endeavors, and it fell to her to steer the Ray Rice situation after horrifying video of the then-Baltimore Ravens running back hitting his wife became public.
The ESPN story dropped during the Rice controversy, when the NFL faced heavy criticism for failing to take domestic violence seriously enough. The NFL had a chance to lead on the issue, and, by Goodell’s own admission, it failed. “I didn’t get it right,” he wrote in a memo.
For most of league history, sports fans would not have looked to the NFL to lead on domestic violence. Now fans expect the NFL, NBA, and others to use their platforms on a wide array of causes, including but not limited to domestic violence, childhood obesity, and criminal justice reform. The headline casting Isaacson as the NFL’s savior spoke to how high the stakes were for the NFL in terms of public perception.
As one of the country’s most dominant cultural organizations, the NFL bears more responsibility than any other in sports. “The public, and young people especially, pay a lot more attention to it, and there are much higher expectations across the board,” Isaacson says.
Fans not only want action but also want that action to be authentic and transparent. The NFL Play 60 campaign aims to fight childhood obesity by encouraging students to be active and eat healthy. Those are laudable goals. But the way the NFL runs the program – “with curriculum saturated in NFL trivia, rituals, and trainings,” as Adam Rugg, an associate professor of communication at Fairfield University, wrote in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues – has come under fire. Rugg chided the NFL for using Play 60 to produce “the next generation of NFL fans and football players.”
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This annoys some in the philanthropy world who see CEOs as loath to spend money unless there is a measurable return on investment. “That’s the shame of corporate philanthropy, because corporations don’t do it unless they’re getting something out of it,” said Melanie Ulle, founder of Philanthropy Expert, a Colorado-based company that works with nonprofits on fundraising strategies.
But that’s not a universally held opinion. Others see Play 60 as the NFL using its expertise on an important topic. Who better than professional athletes to teach kids about being active? What are they going to do – talk about some other sport?
“I think it makes a lot of sense for professional sports leagues to be creating community programs which bring value to the community, to their physical health, to their mental health, to the spaces in which they play which may need refurbishment, and to also breed a next generation of fans of their sport,” Wolff says. “That, to me, actually is the best of bringing a business such as sports together with philanthropy because everybody wins.”
The NFL and its teams give millions every year to community impact organizations through programs such as Play 60, Crucial Catch (cancer), and Salute to Service. Kids, cancer, veterans – those are evergreen causes that have been part of the sports philanthropy landscape for many years.
One of the biggest challenges organizations like the NBA and the NFL face is engaging more challenging causes without being overreactive or seeming opportunistic. The NFL’s 10-year, $250 million Inspire Change social justice campaign, which launched in 2018, focuses on four pillars: education, economic advancement, police-community relations, and criminal justice reform. Its existence is a reflection that “people expect more,” Isaacson said. “They want us to take a stand. They want us to have an opinion.”
In December, the NFL reported it has given $244 million to nonprofit organizations whose work relates to Inspire Change’s four pillars. It seems incongruous: Play 60 has obvious connections to football, and Inspire Change doesn’t have any. Isaacson says the thread running through both is inequity, whether it’s health inequity, educational inequity, economic inequity, social justice inequity, or racial inequity.
In the first few years of Inspire Change, the NFL’s focus was on listening and learning. “We’re not the expert on these issues, right? We’re a football league,” Isaacson says.
Since then, Isaacson and her team have refined programs under the four pillars to make them more measurable. Under education, they are “drilling down” on mentorship, Isaacson says. According to Inspire Change’s most recent report, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America fostered more than 2,400 mentoring relationships, Mentor Affiliates trained 1,400 community leaders in 13 states, U.S. Dream Academy provided 150 children of incarcerated parents 2,000 hours of mentorship, and City Year provided 9.3 million hours of tutoring, mentoring, and support for students in underresourced schools.
Play 60 appears to be making a difference, too. A study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed annual improvements in aerobic capacity and body mass index for students involved in Play 60 compared to those who aren’t.
One way to know an organization’s values is to look at its community-oriented programs. In 2021, the NBA established the social justice champion award and named it after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The summer of 2020 was “an inflection point” for the NBA in a move toward a social justice focus, said Greg Taylor, executive director of the NBA Foundation. The NBA has never run into the same level of scorn over human rights issues like the NFL has with Rice or Kaepernick. Still, just as the Rice scandal spurred the NFL into action, the summer of 2020 pushed the NBA to increase its commitment to social justice action. That summer, George Floyd was killed by police in Minnesota, and Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black father of six, was shot seven times by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police, which led the Milwaukee Bucks to boycott a game.
The moment transcended sports. Taylor, who worked in philanthropy for 25 years and for the NBA’s player development department for a decade before taking the foundation job, says the NBA asked itself: “Who are we supposed to be in this moment?”
The answer gave birth to the NBA Foundation, a 10-year, $300 million commitment from owners whose mission is “to drive economic opportunity in the Black community through employment and career development by funding programs that generate successful transitions from school to meaningful employment for Black youth.”
The foundation stands alongside the pre-existing NBA Cares, which “works with nationally and internationally recognized youth-serving programs that support education, youth and family development, and health-related causes.”
The NBA Foundation targets 14- to 24-year-olds, with a focus on helping them earn jobs with “family-sustaining wages in a growth industry,” Taylor says. “It’s the jobs, frankly, we’d want for our children.”
Two years in, the foundation has doled out $75 million in grants. Its key metrics are partnerships, jobs, and young people served. “Have we had behavior change in young people yet? Not yet,” Taylor says. “But it’s certainly on its way, and we’re on the right path.”
Does the NBA get anything out of this? Of course. Jacobson says the NBA hopes to gain a competitive advantage from the NBA Foundation and NBA Cares. He used the phrase “double bottom-line strategy,” meaning that positive work gets done in communities — the Foundation prioritizes cities with franchises — and the NBA benefits, too.
If NBA Cares and the NBA Foundation are well run, they will help the NBA recruit and retain talent and make the NBA more attractive to sponsors. “It is a competitive advantage because you’re spending your time growing your business in a really innovative way,” he said.
The NBA is not just pushing for employment opportunities. It’s providing them. Seventy-five interns (up from 60 last year) from historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, will have 10-week, fully paid jobs at the league office and with teams. “It really represents us putting our money where our mouth is,” Taylor says.
While expectations for athletes to give back are higher than ever, so is the scrutiny when they do. An ESPN Outside the Lines investigation of 115 athlete charities found “74 percent of the nonprofits fell short of one or more acceptable nonprofit operating standards.”
The investigation uncovered a litany of misdeeds, “ranging from the deceptive and unethical – if not illegal – to the simply neglectful and ignorant.”
With that as a backdrop, it’s understandable why fans would view the latest fundraiser for an athlete’s foundation with a cynical eye. Insiders have an easy solution to defeat that cynicism: Stop it before it starts. If you’re thinking about opening a foundation, don’t.
“For 99 percent of athletes, that’s probably not the best path,” says Jason Belinkie, chief executive officer of Athletes for Hope, which was started by boxing legend Muhammad Ali, tennis great Andre Agassi, soccer superstar Mia Hamm, and others in 2006. Their goal was to help athletes who want to give back but don’t know where to start.
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Athletes don’t start foundations intending to break IRS rules. “The exact opposite of what you intended to happen occurs,” Belinkie says. “You wanted to do this great event to benefit the community. And then there’s an article that gets written that 90 percent of the proceeds went to the expenses of the event, and nothing really got to the end beneficiaries.”
On top of challenges of starting and running a foundation, athletes have to deal with the tumult of life in pro sports. Often at a moment’s notice, they can be cut, hurt, traded, or forced to retire. “These are all things you have to think about when you are creating an organization that the community depends on,” Belinkie says.
Belinkie counsels athletes to start by finding organizations on the issues they are passionate about and working with them. When Demario Davis, the New Orleans Saints’ nominee for NFL Man of the Year, entered the league in 2012, he aspired to follow paths carved by Ali and basketball great Bill Russell. He attended a rookie symposium about the wrong ways to do charity, and that caught his attention.
He had a specific vision to help students in Mississippi and sought out Belinkie for advice. Instead of starting his own foundation, he worked with a consulting group to design a program and partnered with Mission First in Jackson, Mississippi, to launch it. The program, known as Devoted Dreamers, is now a four-week camp for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. It teaches financial literacy, reading comprehension, physical fitness, and character.
Davis eventually started a foundation, but only after being active in the philanthropic community for six years and learning the ins and outs. Through Devoted Dreamers, plus a separate mentorship program for elite athletes and a program targeting girls 8 through 18, he and his wife, Tamela, have helped more than 1,000 kids. He’s grateful to Belinkie and Athletes for Hope because he learned what to do and – just as importantly – what not to do.
“You want to crawl before you can walk,” he says. “It would have been a whirlwind of trouble had I tried to go right in and start a foundation without even understanding how foundations work.”
Perhaps the best way for the sports world to do good work in their communities is also the easiest: Show up. Yes, that bar is super low. But the impact can be super high.
“The most valuable commodity you can provide people is time,” the NBA’s Jacobson says. “Those moments when a player connects, or a coach connects, even a staff person connects, mean everything to somebody who needs it the most. It is incredibly powerful, the transformative moment you can have with people in such a short period of time.”
Davis donated a van to a young man who was paralyzed after being shot and was there when the van was delivered. It’s one thing to look at an expense report for a van. It’s quite another to see someone wiping away tears as he looks at that van.
“That’s something you don’t get if you just donate the van and don’t show up,” Davis says. “The presence is just as important for the giver of the time as it is the receiver of the time.”
As the 2018 NFL draft approached, Tyler Hawkinson, a 13-year-old from South Elgin, Ill., was in the final stages of cancer treatment. A huge NFL fan, he crafted PowerPoint presentations on the sport, drew up plays, and ran mock drafts. His loved ones hatched a plan to try to get one draft hopeful to record an encouraging message for him.
Athletes for Hope contacted participants in a Senior Bowl workshop to see if any would participate. One became two became 10 became 80. “We were just overwhelmed by the amount of support,” Belinkie says. “And his parents were like, ‘This is the one of the greatest moments in his life.’”
Those videos cost nothing and required no time or effort, yet they carried power a check couldn’t match. This shows that as much as this industry has changed, in one way it hasn’t: the importance of human connection. In an era that demands transparency, what’s more see-through than standing there in the flesh? A handshake can’t be misspent. A hug can’t run afoul of IRS regulations. A word of encouragement can’t be retweeted with a snide remark. Who doesn’t love to meet their hero? Even an ice-cold cynic smiles at the thought.